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Playoff drought finally ends for Hiroshima after 22 years

by Wayne Graczyk

Every once in a while, it’s nice to see a team that does not usually qualify for postseason play make it into the playoffs.

Like the Pittsburgh Pirates. Like the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Like the Hiroshima Carp.

Hiroshima came alive during the month of September, broke away from the pack of four clubs fighting for third place and will be playing next week in the Central League Climax Series for the first time since the CL began CS play in 2007.

Hiroshima will be facing the Hanshin Tigers in the best-of-three first stage of the Climax Series, beginning Oct. 12.

Manager Kenjiro Nomura said most of the year he was “not genki” but, after his club completed a seven-game winning streak in mid-September and opened a 5½-game lead over the fourth-place Chunichi Dragons, he was feeling fine when the Carp visited the Yomiuri Giants, as his job for next year appears to have been saved.

Nomura was able to lead his team into the playoffs despite losing to injury key players such as second baseman Akihiro Higashide, veteran pinch hitter Tomonori Maeda and, more recently, third sacker Shota Dobayashi.

The fourth-year skipper found a way to patch things together, though, putting Ryosuke Kikuchi at second base, where he has responded with a 10-home run, 52-RBI performance batting first or second in the order.

Nomura also platooned left-handed batter Shogo Kimura and right-swinging Tetsuya Kokubo at third base and skillfully alternated Jun Hirose (right-handed batter) and Ryuhei Matsuyama (lefty) in right field.

Nomura also inserted his two burly foreign sluggers, the left-handed hitting Kila Ka’aihue and right-side hitter Brad Eldred into the lineup as his Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, respectively.

“The team was about 20 games under .500 when I joined in June,” said Ka’aihue.

When the Carp clinched their playoff berth, they were but two games below the break-even point. It is a common belief any playoff team anywhere should at least play .500 ball, and Kila said, “I agree.”

Eldred, returning from a stint on the Hiroshima farm club to team up with Ka’aihue, said the difference for the Carp in September was, “We started scoring more runs to support the starting pitchers.”

Indeed, rotation hurlers Kenta Maeda, Yusuke Nomura, Bryan Bullington and Kan Otake often benefited from pitching with leads last month, whereas they typically were given only one or two runs from the offense in previous months.

Maeda is 15-6 (through Wednesday) and the league leader in ERA (1.96), while Bullington finally achieved a winning record after struggling all season. He’s 11-9. Nomura is 11-6 and Otake is 10-10.

Closer Kam Mickolio has racked up 27 saves and, in his second year with the Carp, did not realize the team has never played in the Climax Series and has not made a postseason appearance since losing to the Seibu Lions in the 1991 Japan Series.

“It’s a nice present to give the fans in Hiroshima who have supported us all year,” said Mickolio.

He and Bullington believe the Carp have a good chance of beating the Tigers, even if they have to play in the hostile environment at Koshien Stadium full of Hanshin fans.

“In a three-game series, anything can happen,” said Bullington.

Among those congratulating the Carp is Marty Brown, commenting on the possibility of a Japan Series between the two Japanese teams he managed, the Carp (2006-09) and the Rakuten Eagles (2010).

Speaking on the phone from his home in Missouri, Brown said he is happy to see the two clubs in the playoffs and is proud to note many of the players on both teams — but especially Hiroshima — began their pro careers and development under his direction.

“One of the reasons I was hired (by the Carp) was to try to get younger players in there. (Shortstop Eishin) Soyogi, for example, had a great first year, then slumped but is back now. (Center fielder Yoshihiro) Maru is another guy I really liked. He has good tools, but he was so young when I was there, and team management wanted him to get some seasoning on the farm,” said Brown.

Both players have made significant contributions this season.

Brown also expressed his delight in the progress of mound ace Maeda, saying, “He has pretty much stayed with the same training routine we had set up for him, and it’s great to see the productive season he is having.

“The fans in Hiroshima must be excited, and I am happy for them,” said Brown who, since being fired by Rakuten three years ago, has managed Triple-A teams for the Toronto Blue Jays; two years in Las Vegas and this past season in Buffalo.

He expects to be back in upstate New York next season as well but admits, “The generation of players we have now is harder to teach.” Barring a chance to manage in the majors, Brown said he would love to eventually serve some MLB club as a Pacific Rim scout.

In the meantime, he’ll be rooting for his good friend and former teammate Kenjiro Nomura in the CL Climax Series next week.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com